Monthly Archives: June 2008

They almost look alike

Downy woodpecker juvenile and adult (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)
Downy woodpecker males — juvenile and adult (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

Here’s a great photo for learning the difference between downy woodpecker babies and their parents.

Last week Marcy Cunkelman took this photo of a downy woodpecker father feeding his youngster in her backyard.

Adult male downy woodpeckers have a red spot on the back of their heads.  Adult females have no red at all.  So that’s dad on the right.

Immature male downy woodpeckers have a muted red spot on their foreheads.  That means Baby is on the left.

I learn something new every day.  Thanks, Marcy.


(photo by Marcy Cunkelman)


Wood duck mother and babies (photo by Chuck Tague)

At the moment they hatch, baby birds are as small as the egg they came from but by the time they leave the nest they’re usually as big as their mother.

This is puzzling.  How can a “baby” bird be so big? Aren’t babies small by definition?

Some are.  Chuck Tague captured this sweet picture of a mother wood duck at Moraine State Park. Her babies are all we expect them to be, small and very cute.

Ducks, geese and shorebirds hatch precocial young, immediately mobile, relatively mature. As soon as ducklings hatch they walk — or in the case of wood ducks, jump — from the nest to the lake and swim away with momma.  She leads them to the safest place.

Unfortunately there is almost no safe place for a duckling. They cannot fly to escape threats and they are not very quick swimmers. Snapping turtles, water snakes and large fish take their toll. That’s why ducks and geese lay up to a dozen eggs per brood. This mother wood duck is doing pretty well to have half her young still with her.

Most birds are the size of adults when we first see them.  Have you noticed that you never see a baby pigeon?

Birds that nest on cliffs and don’t swim — peregrine falcons and rock pigeons, for instance — have only one way to leave the nest. They must fly, and they must do it well enough to navigate a windy place and land safely.

For these birds the first flight is all or nothing, so the young must be adult size and fully feathered before they make the attempt. If there weren’t webcams on peregrine nests we would never know the babies are small and white for several weeks. Pigeon nests don’t have webcams so we never see baby pigeons.

And so I come to the surprise people registered when they saw how big our fallen juvenile peregrine was. How could he get that big in 6 weeks? Why is he so big if he only left the nest 18 days ago?

It’s confusing until you remember that all baby birds grow to adult size in a matter of weeks. It’s just that with baby ducks, we get to see the process.

Feed Me

Tufted Titmouse feeding baby (photo by Marcy Cunkelman) (Something other than peregrines!)

Baby birds are everywhere. The number of fledglings has exploded since the middle of June and they beg so loudly that I hear them before I see them.

In a recent walk through Schenley Park I came across three separate families of tufted titmice – parents and fledglings. At first I expected to see chickadees because the youngsters made a sound similar to the chickadee’s call note. This must be because titmice are related to chickadees.

Like all baby birds, the titmouse babies called and fluttered their wings to attract their parents’ attention. This display could also attract the attention of predators but it certainly made their demands known. The adult titmice were run pretty ragged.

With babies on the wing, the adults look for an easy source of food. If you have a bird feeder they’ll use it immediately with children in tow. That’s how Marcy Cunkelman captured this photo of a tufted titmouse feeding its baby.

While at the feeder the parents eat too. Eventually the youngsters get the hint and look down at the seeds at their feet. “Aha! It’s faster if I feed myself!”

“At last!” think the adults. “We thought you’d never get it.”

Sad, sad news

Young peregrine falcon who died by flying into a window in Oakland (photo by Kate St. John)June 24, 2008

He was one of ours.

At 11:45am I got a call at work from someone I’d never met.  She was standing by the Rand Building at Fifth Avenue and Craig Street and there was a dead peregrine falcon at her feet.  She told me his band numbers.  I knew immediately that he was one of the young falcons born at the Cathedral of Learning in April.

Though she told me he was no longer breathing, I ran down Fifth Avenue with my bird rescue towel.  When I arrived he was still warm but, yes, he was dead.

Poor baby!  On the sidewalk near him were pieces of pigeon.  Only a few minutes earlier he had been zooming by with food in his talons and had not seen that the windows were walls, they were not dark openings.  The impact broke his neck.  There was nothing anyone could do.

Several people saw it happen.  Someone in the Rand Building was looking out the window when our youngster hit the wall.  Someone at street level was using the ATM machine below when his body fell to the sidewalk.  Gail Newton and Nancy Janda were walking by and stopped to help.  Two peregrines flew over as we knelt near him.  His family saw it too.

Both Gail and Nancy work at SEI next door to the Rand Building.  Gail is also a volunteer at the National Aviary so she knew how to read his vital signs and who to call.  I am so grateful they called me at WQED.  I am so glad I could see him and hold him.

If he had been alive, there would have been a lot to do.  As it was, there was only the issue of burying him.  Federal law prohibits anyone without a permit from collecting a dead bird.  The law is even stricter for endangered peregrine falcons.  In Pennsylvania, the Game Commission decides what to do with his body so I called Beth Fife, our local WCO, and she told me to report his band numbers to the Game Commission record keepers and then I could bury him.

I took his picture just before we buried him.  He rests within sight of the place he was born.

Requiescat in pace.  


(photo by Kate St. John)

Update, 2014:   This was the first juvenile death I witnessed since I began monitoring peregrines in 2001.

Just when you thought it was over…

Peregrine falcon - probably Tasha - at the Oliver Building (photo by Heather Jacoby)…a peregrine appears.

Nope, my blog isn’t over.  There are plenty of birds to write about.  In fact I feel guilty that I gave them so little attention in the past three months.  But just when I think peregrines won’t put in an appearance… ta dah!

This afternoon Heather Jacoby captured this photo of an adult peregrine perched on a windowsill at the Oliver Building in downtown Pittsburgh.

By the size and look of this bird I think she’s an adult female and there can be only one adult female peregrine in downtown Pittsburgh:  Tasha, the Queen of the Gulf Tower.

She looks almost tame – Heather said she was curious about the people inside the window – but don’t be fooled.  Tasha is far from tame.  To her, people are harmless when indoors but if someone had opened a window she’d have shown what she’s made of!

So keep checking this blog.  I’m still writing about birds and when the other birds get boring I’ve got peregrine news to spice things up.  Peregrines show up in the most surprising ways.

Thank you to Heather Jacoby for sharing her photo with us.  She was so lucky to see Tasha this close!

Pitt Peregrine highlights, 2008

Juvenile Peregrine Falcon at University of Pittsburgh nestThe young peregrines have flown at both Gulf Tower and Pitt.  The nests are empty and the falconcams have nothing to show except gravel and old feathers.

The only way to get a peregrine fix is to visit downtown or the Cathedral of Learning and try to find them flying.  But even a visit to their homes doesn’t guarantee seeing them because they doze in hiding places when it’s hot.

In about a month they’ll leave Pittsburgh and the season will be truly over.

If you’re like me, you miss the falconcams.  Fortunately I’ve come up with an elegant solution:  a slideshow of 2008 Pitt nesting season highlights.


p.s. The bird pictured here on June 9th is the juvenile female peregrine from Pitt.  By that date, both her brothers had fledged but she had not — yet.  She used her free time to explore the camera.

Late-nesters get into the act

Cedar Waxwing (photo by Chuck Tague)
Cedar Waxwing (photo by Chuck Tague)

By the summer solstice (that’s today) most birds in southwestern Pennsylvania have babies – or at least eggs.  Some are even incubating their second brood after fledging their first babies in May.

Not so with cedar waxwings.  Because they eat fruit, their nesting is timed to produce young when the fruit is ripe.  The fruit season is just beginning now so cedar waxwings are courting.

Yesterday in Schenley Park I heard a high-pitched “zeee zeee” as cedar waxwings flew to a nearby tree.  It was a pair and when they stopped to perch I saw they had a single berry that they passed back and forth to each other.

Feeding one’s mate is a courtship ritual among many species.  (We humans have dinner dates.)   For cedar waxwings it’s especially important because the female does all the incubation and her mate must feed her for the duration.  That’s 12-13 days of carrying one berry at a time.    And despite the fact that they begin to nest in June, they usually produce two broods.

Eventually one of the waxwings swallowed the berry and the two took off together.  What a sweet courtship ritual.  Happy family!

Watch out!

Peregrine attacks Great-Blue Heron, Wilminton, DE (photo by Kim Steininger)Last weekend in Wilmington, Delaware, Kim Steininger watched an amazing thing near the local peregrine falcons’ nest.  The mother peregrine saw a great-blue heron fly through the area … and attacked it! 

I’ve never seen anything like this before.  Herons are fish-eating wading birds who have no interest in eating peregrine babies.  I can only imagine that the heron’s wingspan reminded the falcon of a bird of prey.  

Kim’s amazing pictures are on her blog – or click on the photo to go there directly.

One thing is certain.  This heron will not fly through the peregrines’ zone for a long time to come.

Thanks to Kim Steininger for permission to use her photo.  Totally awesome!

Red-tail babies, Part 2

Red-tailed Hawk nestling pre-flight (photo by Kate St. John)

If you’ve been reading my blog for any length of time – and viewing the normally gorgeous photos – you can tell that today’s pictures were taken by yours truly at a very long distance with a lens that wasn’t up to the job.  Clearly I am very lucky to have friends with good cameras and lots of skill who save me from having to rely on my own photography. 

As you can (or can’t) see, there’s a bird in the center of the first picture.  It’s a young red-tailed hawk standing in the gutter of the building next to my office.  This is where he was born and he’s still too young to fly so, for the moment, this is where he’s staying.  

In the past five days he and his sibling have explored the gutter from end to end and flapped their little hearts out to exercise their wings.  When the weather is bad they have nowhere else to go so they stand stoically and wait for something to change.  Last week after a particularly hard downpour the two of them stood in the gutter with their wings slightly open waiting to dry off.  Fortunately there has been no hail.

Mother Red-tailed Hawk looking for prey from a sneaky location (photo by Kate St. John)While I snapped his picture, our young hawk was looking at his mother, probably hoping she would bring him food.  She was trying to be inconspicuous among the floodlights but some blue jays were harassing her so much that she whined – and so I found her. 

She and her mate have been quite busy providing food.  From a distance I can see him over at Carnegie-Mellon, perched on Warner Hall’s antenna staring at the ground.  He, too, hopes for a successful hunt.  His kids must be fed 10-15 times a day.

Some day soon – I wish I knew when – the two young red-tailed hawks will fledge.  They’ll stay very close to the nest for the first few days.  Perhaps then I’ll get a better picture.

Hmmmm.  Don’t count on it.

Food For Thought

Gray squirrel (photo by Chuck Tague)

This morning at breakfast I watched a gray squirrel mosey along the garden wall, pick a ripe strawberry and begin to eat. My cat crouched at the window and muttered, but the squirrel knew the cat could not get out. He nonchalantly ate half the strawberry and dropped it on my deck.

Annoying!  He ate only half and left the rest to stain the wood.

And what was he doing eating fruit?

It turns out that gray squirrels specialize in nuts but they also eat fruit, insects, bird eggs and nestlings.

That explains the scuffle I saw yesterday when a squirrel ran out of a tree hotly pursued by a pair of robins. The robins meant business and were trying to peck him. I figured they were defending a nest so I tried to help by chasing the squirrel.  I have no idea if I made a difference.

It’s a difficult time for nesting birds. The nuts aren’t ripe yet and the squirrels are hungry. The only mitigating factor is that the red-tailed hawks are hungry too … for squirrels.


(photo by Chuck Tague)